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Native Charities and Winter Giving

A column by Cheryl Crazy Bull about Native American charities.

Imagine societies where frequent family and community events were held to ensure that all people were provided for and where goods and resources were regularly redistributed so no one would be in need. Traditionally, American Indian societies are like that.

Imagine that this social structure of sharing and generosity is taken away from you. That is what happened to American Indian Tribes across the U.S. Giveaways, ceremonies and potlatches were banned by the federal government and often by church leaders—seen as events that epitomized the definition of “Indian” and unnecessary to the assimilation of tribes into American society. Tribes resisted and after decades of oppression, there has been a revitalization of this important means of sharing good fortune with those who have less.

Yet, the effects of the policies banning redistribution of resources have not disappeared. There remains an incredible lack of access to resources for most children and their families on our reservations and rural and urban tribal communities. Families in tribal communities are still without adequate resources to live. Poverty has taken its toll. Our response, today, has been to increase our strategies toward building relationships that bring resources into our communities.

There are literally thousands of organizations raising money throughout the United States and hundreds of them raise funds on behalf of American Indians. There is no doubt that a tremendous need exists in diverse social and geographic settings for resources to improve the health, education and welfare of Native people.

Although I had always heard the American Indian College Fund Board and staff speak with great pride about their charity watchdog ratings, I hadn’t really understood what that means until I took this new role as President of the College Fund. What I learned about its meaning is important to every Native person throughout the country and to everyone who wants to share their good fortune with a worthy cause. Charity ratings are an excellent way to determine if your investment as a giver is going to the people you intend to help.

Native people often don’t think of national Indian organizations as charitable groups, yet they are. They are designated by the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(3) organizations, meaning contributions are tax deductible. They often choose to meet national charitable watchdog standards, demonstrating how the funds they raise are distributed.

Participation in a range of fundraising approaches and with watchdog organizations is a fact of life among reputable national native charities.

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Many charitable activities occur at the local, grassroots level in reservation, rural and urban Indian communities. With the rise of social media and crowd funding, more direct giving can be promoted through sites such as Facebook, indiegogo and Kickstarter, or with bloggers such as navajo on the Daily Kos.

In American Indian communities across the country, winter should be a time of rest and storytelling, a time of gathering and celebrating the well-being of our families. Instead it is often a time of great hardship and anxiety. The lack of resources to provide adequate heat, food and health care really shows during the winter. In our past, we prepared for winter throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons. I think of giving to our Native charitable organizations as a way of preparing our people for the winter. We need education, housing, health care, protection of land and resources, and economic development to take care of ourselves when the harshest times arrive.

We also need to be accountable as organizations that raise funds on behalf of our people. Not all of us have the ability to participate with watchdog organizations such as Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving program, but national Native charities certainly should. Donors should be assured that their giving benefits our people and watchdog agencies are one very public, very accessible way to evaluate that assurance. For local and regional groups, especially our grassroots fundraisers, the due diligence of donors can be more direct—donors can see the results through the use of grassroots social media, phone calls, photos, and can even visit for themselves.

If you want to give directly to a tribal family and community, do some research and find a reservation or urban based organization that works in the tribal community. They will put your resources to the best use by supporting children and their families. All reservations have a range of services provided by grassroots organizations including child and family services, education, violence prevention, health and wellness and housing support. There are urban Indian centers in many cities that can steer you to organizations that you can support—many have their own outreach programs that you can learn about and support. Most are 501(c)(3) organizations.

Finally, education, especially an education at a tribal college or university, is one of the most effective ways to overcome poverty and a lack of access to resources both at the family and at the community level. The American Indian College Fund provides vital scholarships to American Indian students. These students achieve their dreams of a college education and become even more engaged as tribal and American citizens.

Give generously and often to Native organizations, locally and nationally. Your gift of your resources and time are welcome and if you use charity watchdog ratings as a guide, you can be assured that your gift is going to the people you intend to support.

Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), whose Lakota name Wacinyanpi Win means “they depend on her,” is President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund (the Fund). Dr. Crazy Bull has more than 30 years of experience with Native American education institutions.